The Manx shearwaters are calling!

Posted on Jun 28th 2015
Manx shearwater

Checking Manx shearwater burrows on St. Agnes, part of the Seabird Recovery Project

Going by the surveys being carried out on Scilly in the last couple of weeks, the number of burrows seemingly occupied by breeding Manx Shearwaters has increased significantly this season. Of course, nothing is certain until the chicks start to fledge in September, but there have been many occurrences of the parents calling back in response to recorded sounds placed into the burrows and, indeed, in response to our own chit chat - as we witnessed ourselves this weekend!

The Visit Isles of Scilly team was lucky enough to be invited last weekend to see the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project in action on Gugh and St. Agnes. Armed with hats, binoculars and a long lens on the camera, we met the effervescent and wonderfully engaging project manager, Jaclyn Pearson on St. Mary's quay - me, my husband and 6 year old son - and set off on our mini-adventure. We were keen to witness, first hand, the conservation work taking place to save our Manx Shearwaters and other breeding seabirds.

Already the rats have been successfully eradicated from both islands - although there are still a few months to go before this can be officially declared - and we were off to check the rapidly increasing number of occupied Manx Shearwater burrows. We happened to pick a day when volunteers were also carrying out Scilly shrew surveys - collecting evidence on the impact of rat eradication on the population of these tiny creatures. 

Arriving on the quay at St. Agnes, we headed straight to the island of Gugh, keen to get cracking before the rising tide cut us off, and to the breeding site of the Lesser black-back gull. It was thrilling to watch these birds and their chicks enjoying their natural habitat. They are so often berated for being aggressive as they swoop down on people but in their own environment they seemed, well, very much at home!

In amongst them, we spotted a beautiful oystercatcher with her three chicks too.

Then we went to check one of the Manx burrows - marked with a wooden lolly pop stick indicating previous evidence of Manx activity. We were richly rewarded. Without having to send pre-recorded Manx sounds down the deep burrow, the parent seemed to sense our presence, and certainly the young voice of a 6-year-old boy as it called back to us several times.  At this time of year, Jaclyn advised us, you hear them less as they prepare for the imminent hatching of their young so we felt incredibly privileged. Manx Shearwaters are nocturnal seabirds and the parents take it in turns to incubate the egg. Once the chicks hatch, the parents bring food to the burrow regularly. It's amazing to think that the chicks will remain in their burrows for around 70 days after they hatch. They fledge towards the end of August totally unaided; their parents already having migrated south. (They migrate all the way to Argentina!)

Then it was time to head back across the sand bar, as the water lapped our toes, to St. Agnes, and to Wingletang bay. Here, we checked more burrows and collected shrew tunnels - some with very diddy footprints, others without -but our son felt very much the conservationist as he checked and noted down the evidence!

It was a delightful and informative few hours in the life of a globally significant seabird project - and one that is turning out to be a great success story for the Isles of Scilly. And we can't wait to witness the fruits of the Jaclyn and her team's work over the next couple of months.

Photo credits: Manx in flight: Joe Pender; others: John Garman

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